Affluent Voters Key to Obama Victory

In follow up of yesterday’s post on affluent voters backing Obama over McCain, I note that Mark Penn has argued at The Politico that affluent voters were the key to Obama’s victory. He looked at some of the characteristics of higher income voters (emphasis mine), with there being both an overlap as well as some differences between how he sees the majority of voters in this class and the views I have previously expressed:

…69 percent of all Americans in polls I conducted in recent years now also call themselves “professionals,” a new class transcending the old class labels or working or middle class or the wealthy. They have white-collar jobs requiring higher education and are earning more than ever before. Because of layoffs and business scandals of recent years, they have become increasingly embittered toward the corporate cultures that would have otherwise been their natural home base.

Unlike the small-businessman who is typically anti-government, these professionals come out of the era of the growth of global corporations believing more than ever before in government intervention, teamwork and collective action. They are the voters who favored the bailout, while the left and the right saw it as a betrayal of their fundamental principles.

These higher educated voters generally believe more in science than religion, in the interconnectedness of the world, and in pragmatism over ideology. They see us all living in a new world and are watching their kids enter it taking new economy kinds of jobs in places increasingly far away from home.

This group is at the core of voters receiving more of their information online and through cable TV in their offices all day long. As they leave many of the problems of working class life behind, this new class is easily captivated by the Sunday shows. What appears on the front pages has more impact on shaping their views than what they experience in their everyday life.

In the end when it comes to a congressional vote, will they support higher taxes if they have to pay them? That is a big question that remains to be seen – they could quickly fragment over the issue if it gets raised early in the Obama administration. And they part company with many other Obama supporters in believing that we need to compete and win in the global economy, seeing trade as a necessity for economic growth.

These new professionals in software, the media, consulting, and mid-management have now declared themselves to be Democrats. After seeing Clinton and Bush back to back, they have switched their votes as part of a rejection of the religious right, the war in Iraq, and laissez-faire economics.

Coming from the Clinton wing of the Democratic Party I am not surprised that Penn is a little off on one point. Yes, pure laissez-faire economics is being rejected, but very few people beyond hard core libertarians ever accepted the most extreme form of this. What is significant about Obama, helping him win the affluent vote, is that he also takes a more free market approach compared to the more populist views of his major primary opponents, Hillary Clinton and John Edwards. The rejection of the religious right and the war in Iraq were instrumental in changing the affluent vote to be more Democratic, but the influence of the University of Chicago on Obama’s economic views also helped make Obama more acceptable than many previous Democratic candidates. The Democratic voters dismissed by the Clintonites as elitists in the primaries were the ones who helped Obama win the general election.

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  1. 1
    Nick says:

    One thing I don’t get.  If these upper income voters fundamental values include (generally believing more in science than religion, in the interconnectedness of the world, and in pragmatism over ideology, why did Bush do so well with these voters (He won voters making over 75K 57%-42%)  when it was  clear in 2004 that Bush didn’t believe more is science and was certainly not a believer in pragmatism over ideology.  Was Kerry deemed too pro-labor/liberal?  Did Bush jjust flat out fool these people?  Was it the financial crisis that hit in late Sept. 2008 that did not hit in fall 2004?  Anybody’s explanation will do. 

  2. 2
    Ron Chusid says:


    When I started this series of posts I thought it might get your attention.

    There are several reasons but much of it comes down to taking time for people to change voting habits. There has been a trend for several years towards the parties being divided more on social than economic issues. There has also been a trend towards an increasing number of affluent Democratic voters but they were still in the minority in 2004.

    Most people don’t follow the blogs or pay attention to the details of the candidate’s beliefs. It has taken time for Democrats to fight off the attacks of all being “tax and spend” liberals. The financial crisis played a part, but this trend was already underway, helping the Democrats take the 2006 elections. Katrina and other factors helped people see through the Republicans far more in 2008 than 2004.

    Kerry had the problem of running against an incumbant in time of war and it was hard to get his message through. I also wish he had concentrated more on getting out his record of support for small business. I bet most voters didn’t know anything about this.

    Obama had many advantages to begin with in running against the Republicans in 2008 compared to 2004, and also did a better job of not only debunking the Republican smears but of using them against the Republicans. Obama even had the benefits of Kerry’s experience and knew what Kerry thought should be done different after 2004.

  3. 3
    Nick says:

    ROn Ron, you know me too well.  Lot of good points here.  As to your point about the 2006 midterms, I should point out that Obama’s 49% of over 50K voters was what Congressional Dems got in 2006, so maybe there is something fundamental going on here with $$$ voters.  In fact in so far as contribution rates are concerned Obama did worse than Kerry among under 50K voters (keep reading this supports your arguement about affluent voters). 
    Contribution rates are the percent of the electorate a group is times the percent of the vote they gave a candidate.  Thus, voters making under 75K-Kerry won 51% of their vote (when they were 68% of electorate).  Thus 68 * .51=34.68.  For 2008, the corresponding numbers were (59 * .55=32.45).  So even though Obama did somewhat better point wise than Kerry among this group, they were a smaller part of the electorate.  (FYI, contribution rates for under 50K were 24.75 Kerry, 22.8 Obama). 
    If Obama had obtained the same 42% of the over 75K vote as Kerry (with McCain getting the same 57% that Bush got ) Obama only wins by less than 0.5%-and does not win a majority of the popular vote.  Winning the popular vote by less than half a point and not winning a majority does not a Democratic Inaugural Address make- just ask President Gore! 

  4. 4
    Jeremy Pober says:

    In general, you’re right on (a trend I’m starting to see). My one little quibble is that I don’t know what makes you define Obama’s approach as “more free market” per se. Obama’s economic approach generally fits in with his ideology of pragmatism, which means contemplation involving opposing viewpoints and thorough consideration of evidence. This makes him less ideological than anyone who agrees or disagrees with free market economics per se. That’s because under this school of thought there is no principled answer to the question of more or less regulation in a given instance, it’s all contextual. I’ve written about Obama and philosophical pragmatism here.

    I guess you can make an argument in that Clinton was more ideologically opposed to free market than Obama, but since his answer to any free market question depends on circumstances and available evidence, I think it remains to be seen if, in practice, Obama is more or less pro-free market than Hilary.

  5. 5
    Mark says:

    First – Penn is absolutely correct that Obama won in part due to a shift in voting preferences of affluent voters, something which has been pointed out by numerous other sources. 

    But I have some serious reservations about some of the other arguments Penn makes.  First, this bloc of voters (the top 5%) tend to be fiscally conservative and socially liberal (ie, libertarian in the loosest sense of the word).   This is also a bloc of voters that has historically been quite Republican in its voting habits.  The most logical and obvious explanation for the shift is this: 1. They realized that there is relatively little difference these days between the major parties on fiscal policy broadly defined. 2.  They realized that a slight uptick of 4-5% in their marginal tax rate was not going to bring about the onset of Soviet Communism and was not going to kill them financially.  3.  Because of the disasters of the Bush Administration, social and foreign policy took precedence over tax policy.  and 4.  The main difference on fiscal policy between Republicans and Democrats these days is that Republicans want to increase spending on more wars whereas Dems want to increase spending on social safety net programs; while we may disagree with the parameters of those programs, their existence is generally understood as necessary or, at a minimum, as a far more benign expenditure than war.

    Penn is dead wrong to argue that this shift represents a repudiation of laissez-faire.  In addition, I think he is being a little bit slippery when he suggests that “professionals,” and specifically the affluent were the ones who supported the bailout.  For starters, he’s using two different data sets – one, the “professionals,” who make up 69% of the electorate, and two, the “affluent,” who make up 5% of the electorate – but then using his theory about the first data set as if it were the same as the second data set.  This isn’t to say that the top 5% didn’t support the bailout – I honestly don’t know whether they did, on the whole.  It’s just to say that the way in which Penn uses numbers is more than a little deceptive.

    Your analysis, however, is pretty much spot-on I think.

  6. 6
    Ron Chusid says:


    I agree that Obama is primarily pragmatic and non-ideological. In general he accepts a free market framework–as does virtually everybody at present.  He has stated this himself in some interviews. Note that by free market I’m not speaking of an extreme ideological position. I’ve been stressing the free market aspects and the influence of Chicago School economists on Obama’s views primarily in response to the right wing attacks on him as being socialistic.

    Clinton’s views are far more supportive of the Nanny State than Obama’s on issues beyond economics. A primary example seen during the campaign was their differences on health care mandates.

  7. 7
    Nick says:

    Now for the jackpot question.  Answering this question may require ESP so a final answer may not be available but I digress.  Can Democrats hold on to these affluent voters in the near future?  John Kerry did better among under 50K voters than Clinton or Gore (and had higher contribution rates than even Obama among this group and 50-75K) and still lost.  Under 50K households made up 56-58% of households in 2004, but only 45% of voters.  In 2008 they were 50% of households but only 38% of voters.  As good as Obama’s grassroots campaing was, any strategies of flooding the polls with middle to lower income voters didn’t work (at least not for now). 

    Will affluent voters flock to the GOP if their taxes go up?  What if Obama  pulls out of Iraq immeadiately.  I know I know the GOP brand is about as popular as the Edsel car post-1959.  But keep these two points in mind
    1) Watergate and a bad mid-1970s economy didn’t stop Ford from almost winning in 1976, and an unpopular Bush (with an even higher unemployment rate than today) in 1992 didn’t stop the Gingrich takeover of 1994. 
    2)  Affluent voters (as evidenced by 2000 and especially 2004) and their higher turnout rates have provided the margins for GOP victories in the past.  If good times return by 2010, will they stay with Dems?  
    My gut says “yes they will.”  But then again, my gut also told me that these same voters (many of whom are well-educated) would see through Bush’s regressive economic policies, and jingoism masquerading as patriotism in ’04.  Unfortunately, President Kerry did not just run for re-election. 

  8. 8
    Ron Chusid says:


    It all depends upon what Obama and the Democrats do now that they hold the White House and Congress, as well as what the Republicans do. Obviously the better the economy does and the better the Democrats are perceived to do, the better their chances of holding on to these voters. I think the Democrats are smart enough not to hit us with big tax increases.

    There is no way to know for certain what the Republicans will do in the future, but at present it looks like the social conservatives are dominating. This will make it harder for them to take back these voters. Voting is largely habit so the longer these voters vote Democratic, the harder it will be for the Republicans to get them back.

  9. 9
    INTJ says:

    Ron, you give more credit to the Democrats than this independant does. The main problem for Obama will be that he faces an entrenched Democratic Congress, who has been there longer than he has, with their own ideas. While this will not be as pronounced as in 1993-94, and he does not have a spirited, energized opposition like Clinton did, it will be a similar issue. Obama, to keep these voters who crossed over, will need to ensure that Congressional Democrats know he is in charge and not to let Chuck Schumer, Ted Kennedy, or Nancy Pelosi go off on their natural proclivities, and fight a side war with them. These voters are deeply concerned about the economy, more so than they are afraid of the far right, and if Congress spooks them by veering too far to the left, they will balk and could be won over by a Tim Pawlenty or a Bobby Jindal. The tax and spend label didn’t work this time around because Bush’s White House spent more than a boatload of drunken sailors, so it wasn’t credible. If Obama lets the left push him into spending even more, he loses that gift.

  10. 10
    Ron Chusid says:

    I think the Democrats will behave considerably different than they did in the first two years of Clinton’s administration. Back in the early 90’s nobody conceived of the idea that they could lose control of Congress, and they overextended. Coming back from being out of power gives a different mind set than when you have been in power for years.

    That’s not to say I expect to be happy with everything they do–just that I expect to oppose far less of what they do than I opposed of what the Republicans did while in power.

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